On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The unifying factor of sports

Unlike badminton or football, diving is very much an individual activity and does not generate the same kind of emotions compared with other popular sports.

In fact, many had asked why 19-year-old Pandelela, and not Datuk Lee Chong Wei, was given the honour of being Malaysia’s flag bearer at the opening of the London Games.

But since she became the first Malaysian woman to win an Olympic medal, this Bidayuh lass has become the darling of Malaysians. She is also the first Malaysian to win an Olympic medal in any sport other than badminton.

Many of us are guilty of not giving the diver the attention she deserves as she has achieved other victories. At the New Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, she won the gold medal in aquatic sports in the 10m platform. And recently, at the World Diving GP in Montreal, Canada, she won gold in the 10m platform. I have also just discovered that she is the first woman flag bearer in the Olympics for Malaysia.

In the early hours of Friday local time, while most Malaysians were sound asleep, this gritty woman created history for the nation.

I believe that not many here stayed awake to see her win the medal. A few of my colleagues had alerted me about this possibility and coaxed me to watch history being made. I now regret not taking their advice.

After all, the team had failed to win in the last six events and hers is a competitive sport we know little about. Besides, after our huge expectations of Chong Wei, we were not expecting anything more.

And without any promise of monetary rewards or other awards, and no leader turning up to cheer her on, Pandelela did what she had to do and went on to stun the nation in the most pleasant way. It was simply incredible!

On Friday, many of us woke up to SMS texts and tweets of her sensational win. It was a truly wonderful way to start the day. Thank you, Pandelela.

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, national female taekwondo athlete M. Vasugi won a bronze medal. However, taekwondo was just a demonstration sport then, and the medal was not counted as an official Olympic medal.

Pandelela’s victory is important because it will spur greater interest in this, at the moment, obscure sport among Malaysians. She is also very young and that means there are bigger prospects ahead for her.

There is also a lesson for our sports officials to learn, that is we should not just concentrate on a few sports as we can excel in others, too.

Both Chong Wei and Pandelela have demonstrated to us what Malaysia can do. They also did what many politicians couldn’t do – bring Malaysians together.

No one looks at Chong Wei as an ethnic Chinese or Pandelela as Bidayuh but simply as Malaysians who have done the country proud.

Unfortunately there are some, and luckily only a few, who have asked why we are celebrating silver and bronze medallists. These people are missing the point.

Malaysia is short of heroes. To put it bluntly, we are desperate for heroes in whom we can rejoice and who can unite the country.

We have spent enough time living in the glory of the past, watching re-runs of the late P. Ramlee’s movies and the old, black and white shots of soccer legend Mokhtar Dahari as we crave for new heroes whom we cannot seem to find.

While Chong Wei did not beat his archrival Lin Dan, he did his best. Pandelela did the unexpected by delivering a medal in a sport we least anticipated.

It certainly is a wonderful gift for all of us as we look forward to the Hari Raya and Merdeka Day celebrations. I am sure their medal-winning performances will be a great topic of conversation over satay and lemang. By now, most of us would be pretty tired of discussions about politics anyway.